Tony and I are back with the second installment of Killer Serials and a look at episodes four, five, and six of the third season of Orange is the New Black.
JRP: So we got off to a good start with themes of motherhood, spiritual longing, and the tension between truth and confession. While those themes are still prevalent across the next three episodes, new ones take center stage, and I think two rise to the top. The first is the notion of identity (or maybe identity ownership) and who can be what and who can say what. The second is the privatization of Litchfield with the arrival of MCC and the Whispers Lingerie contract.
Boo’s character drives Episode 4 and it’s a fundamental discussion of identity and how it functions. I found her teenage relationship with her father to be a breath of fresh air, but as an adult, when she visits her mother in the hospital, it turns into something that we’ve seen before, even in this series. Is her sexuality her true self or is it a costume she wears (like her father suggests), or is it a combination of both? Her father tells her, “No one gets the privilege of being who they are all the time.” When Boo tries to “pass” as “evangeli-crazy” she can’t do it, because it has been a main source of her oppression for so long.
In the kitchen, and across the prison, Norma is taking up her own spiritual practice and she is gaining popularity, much to Gloria’s chagrin. Gloria confronts Norma and tells her, “Santeria is some serious shit. […] This ain’t your culture. This ain’t your history.” Closely related to this in terms of spirituality is the popularity of Kosher meals among some of the prisoners. Black Cindy takes advantage of religious freedom and begins eating them even though she’s not Jewish. Nor is Lolly, the new prisoner who starts the craze.
Finally, in terms of identity, as the women begin working in the “sweatshop,” Piper calls it for what it is, slave labor. Black Cindy and Janae hear her and promptly correct her. Janae tells her, “You don’t get to say that.” Black Cindy says the more appropriate definition is indentured servitude, which Piper wouldn’t know about either. But, in this case, Piper is right. She, like Black Cindy and Janae, is being exploited for pennies on the hour.
TJ: Identity is primary, as you say, but even now it’s tied to motherhood, which I think is emerging as the overriding issue of season three. Each character, it seems, has a tortured relationship with her mom, and that hangs over their desire to develop and mature.
I really love that we’re getting backstories of the next ring of characters, including Big Boo. As you suggest, her parents’ rejection of her sexuality is redundant — that’s what drove Poussey away from her parents — but it’s surely common enough in the real world to merit that.
I’m fascinated by the identity issues in episode six, “Ching Chang Ding Dong.” Before watching it, I’d been wondering if anyone at Litchfield is lonelier than Poussey, and I thought of Chang. Then this episode delved into her background, showing her as an acne-scarred Chinese immigrant, too homely even to be sold into marriage. But we also saw that she has a secret life at the prison that seems to bring her much fulfillment.
If Chang’s appearance as a young woman shaped her identity, so does Piper’s. The conversations about beauty are fascinating around the Whispers Lingerie sewing tables. The women debate different racial standards of beauty, but they all agree that the standard white version is skinny and blonde. And they all look at Piper. But Piper is complaining about her looks, which is when a new character, Stella, calls bullshit on her.
When it comes to identity, Piper may know herself least of anyone. Though Caputo may give her a run for her money.
JRP: The privatization of Litchfield Prison is a damning depiction of something we don’t often talk about in mainstream conversations. I know that many people refuse to watch the series and, for me, this is one of the more troubling aspects of this new season. It’s mining humor from one of the most inhumane practices in twenty-first century America. Not only are wages criminally low, new management looks to save money even on feeding the prisoners. MCC representatives complain that Caputo can’t get the per-meal-average down to the national standard of $1.58 (he’s 21 cents off). But the privatization of prisons doesn’t result in just slave labor, it exploits the guards and staff as well, whose benefits are cut to save money. Less strenuous hiring practices lead to ill-equipped guards, which are ineffective in keeping order. I
I think one key aspect of the privatization of Litchfield is part of a larger theme: food and its implication for agency and freedom. Red is literally devastated when MCC ships in bagged food to feed the inmates. Even though she was working with shitty ingredients in previous seasons, she was still preparing and cooking it. Part of Chang’s fulfillment comes from her ability to make and eat the type of food she likes.
TJ: I love that work that Chang does to create meals that are gratifying to her. But it’s also heart-rending because of the amount of work she has to go through to make it happen.
And I agree completely about the privatization issue. I’ve read a couple pieces where commentators disparage OITNB because it makes light of prison and doesn’t show how difficult life inside really is, and I thought of that during Chang’s time in the shed, eating an orange and watching TV on a phone, wondering, Would she really have that much freedom?
But in spite of these, I commend Kohan for raising the issue of privatization this season. Kohan is in good company in using comedy to shed light on our country’s moral failure — that’s exactly what Robert Altman and Larry Gelbart did with M*A*S*H.
JRP: Check back next week for our dialogue on episodes 7, 8, and 9.